Thin White Line
I came to motherhood at knifepoint. I didn’t feel the scalpel’s razor edge as it sliced through flesh and sinew and muscle. I didn’t see blood, the slow seep of crimson across my belly. All this was hidden by a disposable, blue drape.
The anesthetist had inserted a needle in the base of my spine—a sharp, painful prick. I felt the slow advance of numbness, then the cool, wet touch of an ice cube on my abdomen.
“Can you feel this?” she asked.
She traced the ice cube up an imaginary centre line over the mound of belly. I could sense more than feel its movement, the trickles of water that beaded down the taut arc of my skin onto the soft mattress below.
“This?” She moved the cube up further toward my breastbone but its icy touch did not register.
“You’re ready,” she said, nodding to the surgeon.
I didn’t think of the sharp blade of steel that would open me, splaying the flesh of my body so my baby could be born. I didn’t think of how that baby would change the landscape of my life, or understand that as this new life was handed to me from behind the blue drape, part of an old one was being taken away.
I wasn’t ready.
How is it, I wonder, that I could have been so unprepared for motherhood? When my husband, Riyad, and I first met, we spoke of many things—our dreams, our desires. I told him that I expected, one day, to be a mother. This wasn’t mysterious or unusual. In a vague, confident way I was certain that motherhood would be another tick-mark added to my plus column of experiences—travel, work, friendships—a heady, self-indulgent collection of adventures. The thought that I might have to give something up just didn’t occur to me. After all, as a teenager and young adult, I had largely gotten what I’d wanted. This was the tenor of life for women of my generation. Sure, there were jobs we didn’t get, loves we lost, opportunities we missed. But mostly, our lives had been about having more, not less.
Sacrifice? What did I know about sacrifice. I am part of the catch and release generation. We sink our hooks into experiences just to try them on. When the going is not to our liking or demands too much of us, we often let go, moving blithely on to the next big fish. We remember little of the time when women were expected to make few demands and to have even fewer aspirations—when we were judged to be at our best, our most praiseworthy, when devoting ourselves to others.
My twenties and a good part of my thirties passed without me even contemplating motherhood. I lived in a realm where not only did I not have to think about children, I rarely had to encounter them. I had single, career-minded friends who I dined with in trendy, adult-oriented restaurants. If anyone under five feet tall toting a pack of crayons was seated anywhere near me, I asked to be moved. On the long flights I often took for work, I seethed in annoyance if I was within ten rows of a screaming child, and glared at its mother with an expression that said Why can you shut that brat up? Basically, I was tuned out of kiddyland—so tuned out that joining the mom club was a complete revelation.
When I got pregnant, I was thirty-seven and felt like I had it all—a great relationship, a successful business and the time and money to do what I wanted. Riyad and I worked hard and played harder. We had a funky townhouse near the beach and a garage full of gear—climbing equipment, tents, skis, windsurfers, bikes, you name it. We were into scaling rock walls and grinding up local peaks with forty-pound packs on our backs. We indulged our whims and becoming a mother wasn’t going to change the equation.
I was seven weeks pregnant when the bubble burst. It was a Saturday morning. Valentine’s Day. Riyad and I were curled up in bed reading the newspaper and drinking coffee, just as we had done for six besotted years. Our cherished weekend ritual was to read the paper front to back, passionately discuss the events of the day, eat breakfast at noon, then head out on some adventure. The two of us against the world.
On this particular morning, Riyad folded the newspaper and turned toward me. “Let’s ski up the backcountry trail to the top of Mt. Seymour,” he said.
Normally, I was game for anything, but this morning my entire body screamed bad idea. I’d felt like puking since my eyes opened. A knot of bile had taken up permanent residence in the pit of my stomach since I’d conceived and my body felt like it had been slammed by a truck. But hey, it was a beautiful day and I wasn’t going to give up on adventure for a half-ounce embryo without a fully developed backbone.
An hour later, we were halfway up a crusted mountain trail. Riyad was several meters ahead, maneuvering nimbly while I felt like a walrus on ice. My skis slipped constantly. Tentatively, I slid one forward, willing the skin to grip the slick incline. It didn’t. Suddenly I was sliding backwards, my skis shooting out on either side. I grappled to dig in my poles, to stop myself flying down the mountain.
“Riyad, help,” I cried as the ends of my skis splayed apart behind me and I fell forward with a whoomph—my stomach hitting the hard-packed snow.
I heard him laughing. “You look like a giraffe.”
I knew I probably looked hilarious, my skis flattened under me, arms flailing, chest and chin on ice. But at that moment, I could think of nothing less funny.
“That’s it!” I screamed. I was getting off this mountain. I only had to turn my skis around, point them back in the direction I’d come, and glide smoothly home. But I didn’t. Instead, I took a deep breath, heaved myself up and pushed on, miserably, to the top. When we finally reached the summit, the vista was awe-inspiring but a cloud hung over me. I knew that I wouldn’t get back to this remote, carefree place for a long time. I had taken the first slippery step away from a life I loved.
The only roadmap I had for the journey into motherhood was one I knew I couldn’t follow. My mother had five children, each a year apart. I imagined that we popped out like gumballs, round and perfect and protected by a colorful sugar coating. Pictures of our family show us lined up, eldest to youngest, neatly dressed, the girls in matching green, velvet smocks my mother had sewn, our wild, dark hair carefully combed. She baked cookies and bread and volunteered for the Hospital Auxiliary to care for the ill and elderly. She dropped us off at the skating rink at six in the morning and was there with hot chocolate and warm cinnamon toast wrapped in tin foil when we got off the ice at eight. Her world now seems to me a bygone age, as strange and distant as those frosty mornings at the rink—a world of wholesome meals turned out three times a day, of dainty canapés for once-weekly bridge games with other moms, and of clothes mended, washed and pressed like new.
Growing up, I was only vaguely aware of what she might have sacrificed, of what she gave up or perhaps never even considered so I could have more. Was she content to stand on the front stoop and send me off to a bigger life? To university in the city? To India to float lazily down the Ganges and watch the funeral pyres consuming the flesh of those who had died of hardship?
A year after my birth, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Had my mother had the time to read it, would she have agreed with Friedan that domestic life was a “comfortable concentration camp” that denied women their identities?
By the time I was old enough to read The Feminine Mystique, it seemed to me that the ideal mother—all giving, self-sacrificing—no longer existed. My friends and I embraced the feminist movement’s disdain for caring for the home and kids. We wholeheartedly rejected the ideal of female altruism. Forget the service ethos, we said. There was more to women than caring for the old and sick and educating our children.
In my second trimester thenausea was a dim memory and that “oh, she’s put on weight” puffiness had morphed into the obvious bulge of pregnancy. Riyad and I headed out to our favourite local café. We hadn’t walked two blocks when I saw a woman pushing a stroller. I smiled congenially. Another block passed. Another stroller. Then another. As we neared the café, I was startled by the number of young mothers I saw. “Wow,” I said to Riyad, “do you see that?”
“It’s Stroller City out here. Our neigbourhood is totally changing,”
He laughed, shaking his head. “It’s no different than it always was. You’re just seeing it for the first time.”
Perhaps my powers of perception were a bit dim, but at least my organizational skills were intact. I’d started arranging my consulting contracts to wrap up a couple of weeks before my fall due date. I told my clients I’d be taking a few months off but that I’d be back in the saddle in six months. I ignored anyone who tried to tell me otherwise. I was prepared, capable, and in complete control of my future. I was setting up my life to return to normal after my child was born.
No one told me there’d be no normal to return to.
My first real inkling of this came in my third trimester. I registered us in a prenatal class. I took copious notes. We learned birthing positions and practiced them. I drew tiny stick figures on chairs, kneeling on all fours, squatting, lying on beds. I had a list of what I’d need to pack for the hospital. I picked out the music that would play softly in the background.
On the last day of our class, I decided to walk the hallways instead of watching a video on c-section deliveries.
“It might upset you,” Riyad had said, knowing how squeamish I get around the sight of blood.
“Then I don’t need to watch it.” Why should I, I thought? I was strong, fit and healthy. There’d been nothing out of the ordinary during my pregnancy. No excessive weight gain. No high blood pressure. Besides, my mother had five vaginal births without a hitch. No, a c-section was definitely not part of the plan.
I settled back into my chair just as the instructor introduced a lighthearted, closing exercise. She held up a sheet of paper divided into two columns of twelve squares.
“These squares represent the hours of the day,” she said, handing a sheet to every couple. She then offered a stack of labeled Post-It notes to go with each sheet.
“These are the tasks you’ll need to do after your baby is born,” she explained. “Fit them into the empty spaces of the day.”
We spread the Post-It notes out on the carpet in front of us. We took stock:
Breastfeeding baby 8
Diaper change 5
Visits from/with friends and family 1
As the page filled up, I felt a slow panic rising.
“What about sleep,” someone asked. Everyone laughed. But inside me, something was exploding— my idealized view of how life with a child would be.
Where were the spaces in the day for sleep, career, sex, backcountry skiing with my husband, reading, writing, freedom, procrastination, independence, spontaneity? How was it that in twelve hours of my baby prep class—in thirty-seven years of living—a mere ten minutes was devoted to telling me what life would be like after my child was born? How could it be that I’d spent almost half a lifetime being female, educated and competent and didn’t understand this fundamental fact of motherhood?
I pushed these thoughts from my mind. Instead, I focused on the upcoming delivery. I had typed and printed out a birth plan: 1. Spend as much time as possible laboring at home. 2. Use the shower during labor or, if available, request the delivery room with the big tub. 3. Avoid the use of drugs or medical interventions unless absolutely necessary.
At thirty-seven weeks I visited my doctor for what had now become a once-weekly check-up. Everything was going as planned. Everything, that is, except I was three weeks from my due date and the doctor couldn’t find the baby’s head. She moved her hands over the mound of my lower abdomen, pressing here and there in search of the unyielding orb of skull. “He must be engaged,” she said, meaning his head had already dropped down into my pelvis.
“Good,’ I thought. He, like me, is getting ready.
“I should do a quick pelvic exam,” she offered. “Just to be sure.”
I’m not a fan of pelvic exams but I told myself it was a small price to pay. I lay back on the examining table, the paper crinkling beneath me. My doctor pulled on a latex glove, releasing the wristband with a snap. Her hand stretched once as if testing the fit, then moved towards me. I felt an uncomfortable bite of pressure, then her fingers moving inside me, reaching. Suddenly she stopped. Surprise flickered on her face.
“Your baby is breach,” she said.
“What!” I was in disbelief. “It can’t be.”
She stared at me mutely.
“Well,” I said, “there must be something that can be done.”
Two days later I was in the hospital writhing in pain while two doctors attempted to manually turn my baby around by reefing on the outside of my abdomen. The pain was unbelievable, but I refused medication. I can handle this, I thought. I focused on the rhythmic sound of the baby’s heartbeat monitor and the small, watery figure on the screen of the ultrasound machine.
“You’re doing great,” one of the doctors said. “We’ve got him turned half way.”
They reefed again. I closed my eyes and bit my bottom lip as a wave of pain tore through me. Then suddenly, mercifully, they stopped. I gulped big breaths of air, waiting for the pain to subside. As it did, I noticed that the sounds from the monitor were slowing down—the quick pulses of my baby’s heart losing momentum. I looked up at the doctors and they seemed momentarily numb, their eyes impossibly large and full of concern. Riyad’s face had gone completely white.
“Quick, turn him back,” I heard the pediatrician say urgently, and the pain swept over me again. I gritted my teeth and squeezed my eyes shut once more. I was still determined to have this baby my way. I’d be damned if I let a foot-first fetus set the agenda.
I look back now and wonder how I could have been so naïve. Today, I live in a schizophrenic realm, a world of half-formed thoughts and half-finished sentences where there is a running battle between mommydom and me-time. I’d rather have sleep than sex and guilt bleeds into the margins of every choice I make.
The nail in the coffin of my previous life didn’t come immediately. The first months with baby were blissful. I lounged in my pj’s ‘til noon. I breast fed and watched Oprah. I took afternoon naps when my son did or went for long runs with my new, high-end baby jogger—inert offspring bundled snugly inside.
Then, at about eight months postpartum, a client called with a big contract and reality smacked me right between the eyes. At first I congratulated myself. I’d put Max on the waitlist of the best daycare in the city before he was even born. Hadn’t I done the hard part? I figured there wasn’t much more to it than dropping him off and getting back to work.
On his first day, I took him down and settled him in the middle of the bright, kid-friendly space. Max seemed amused at first. He picked up a plastic cell phone and jabbed at the colourful buttons. Nothing happened.
“We don’t replace batteries when they run out,” said Elsie, one of the daycare providers. Her bushy eyebrows rose conspiratorially, as if to say: “Would you want a dozen toys around beeping and chiming and playing Twinkle, Twinkle over and over again?”
I laughed—a forced, stiff laugh—and nodded my head. Be extra nice to the daycare provider, I said to myself, then she will be extra nice to your child.
Elsie was wiry and middle-aged, her frizzy, flyaway hair streaked with gray. It looked like she didn’t own a comb, and though it was only eight-thirty in the morning, she appeared exhausted. Our moment of bonhomie passed and I was still standing awkwardly in front of her.
“So,” she said, “we’ll see you at five.”
I swallowed hard and knelt down on the carpet next to Max. “Bye bye, sweetie. Mommy has to go now.” He looked at me blankly, but a shadow of uncertainty was in his eyes. I hugged him tightly as Elsie looked on.
“Best to be quick,” she said.
Hesitantly, I stood and headed for the door. Max immediately started to cry. “Mama. Mama.”
I waved and smiled. Keep walking, I told myself.
“Ma MAAAAA!” He was wailing, now, his face twisted with incomprehension. He began to crawl toward me, his pudgy little hands and Robeez-clad feet scrabbling furiously along the worn carpet until Elsie scooped him up. My last glimpse of my son was in the arms of a haggard, wild-haired stranger—his body contorted with screams as I walked out the door.
It’s like pulling off a Band-Aid, I told myself on the drive home—the pain will be short and intense, gone by the time you sit down in front of the papers piled high on your desk. This is good, I said. You love your work. It’s important to you. But my pep talk didn’t wash. I didn’t return home buoyant and unencumbered, ready to happily climb the stairs two at a time to my computer. Instead, I lay curled in a fetal position on my living room couch, crying—every inch of my being aching with loss.
There have been many separations since then. There have been intense work projects that I have attacked feverishly during naptime, cursing Max if he woke early. There have been countless nights when I put the coffeepot on after his bedtime, and worked, bleary eyed, into the night. I have tried to cobble my work life together, but everything seems fragmented—my desk time, my powers of concentration, my desire.
These days, my most passionate discussions with Riyad are about who does dishes or bedtime. Like the pre-natal exercise with too many Post-It notes, I scramble to fit it all in, the pieces that were there before, the ones added. Time for my husband. Time for my child. Time for me. The canvas of my life is smudged. There are no clean lines. No primary colours. I am continually torn between my desire—even need—to work and to nurture my relationship, and my feelings that by doing so, I am depriving my child in some fundamental way.
Sacred is the word that immediately precedes sacrifice in the dictionary. It is defined as something that is unassailable, inviolable, highly valued and important. Women like me were brought up to believe that our personal aspirations and identities were sacred. So we hang on for dear life, loathe to let go of our hard-earned status of self. Instead, we layer on a new life—the life of mother. And what motherhood demands of us is not just our love and desire, but a deep cut into who we once were. A cleaving apart of the life we were once driven to create for ourselves, and our new reality. How could any of us be ready?
Deciding to have a c-section was my first act of sacrifice. I didn’t want to be cut open—to let go of motherhood’s rite of passage—even when my doctor advised me that breach deliveries were risky.
“Who’s stronger,” my sister asked when I told her that I was agonizing over the decision, “you or the baby?” I should have realized then that I was no longer in control. That there was no going back to my previous life.
I was beaten by a six-pound baby, and it was only the beginning. I still struggle with sacrifice. Some days I rail against motherhood’s repetitiveness and responsibilities. Other days, I feel I might be moving toward a new identity, a new sense of myself as a woman and a person. The predictable progress of my life before motherhood has been replaced by a messier, more ambiguous process of becoming. But I think I am closer to embracing the words of American artist, Charles DuBois, who said, “The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”
There is a scar on my abdomen where the scalpel cut into me, a small crease marking the place from which my baby was taken. After my son was born the incision site was red, sore and angry looking. It hurt to laugh. I walked slowly and carefully then, feeling the pull of tender skin that had been stitched back together. I couldn’t carry anything heavy and worried that sudden movements would tear the wound apart, opening me up again. Today, I look down and see only a thin, white line. It will always be with me, but some days I almost forget it’s there.